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Madden’s secret, best single-player mode is Ultimate Team

And I haven’t spent a dime on it, either

Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback, planting his back foot on the run and ready to unload against their hated rivals, the Denver Broncos, in Madden NFL 20
Everybody gets Kansas City stud Patrick Mahomes early on in Madden NFL 20’s Ultimate Team.
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

There’s a great single-player mode in Madden NFL 20, it’s just not the one I was expecting.

It’s Madden Ultimate Team, and before you ask, I haven’t spent a cent in it, either. My Ultimate Team may still only be rated in the upper 70s, but I have a cast of interesting players and a connection to them that’s much stronger than being their virtual teammate or coach in the game’s traditional Franchise suite.

I’m not spending any money because this year, there’s simply a lot for me to do with this team without getting into the arms race of competitive human-vs-human play, and the grind against zero-sum, full-game, win-or-lose outcomes that represents. Jake Stein, an eight-year veteran of EA Tiburon’s development team, says designers have been giving solo players more attention, year-to-year, responding to the data they see in how people play their mode and what causes them to leave it. The result is a meatier mode than I’ve given it credit for over the past 10 years.

“I’m not sure of what the outside perception would be, but a majority of our players are more single-player experience players, versus people who want to go jump into online games,” Stein said. He works on MUT’s live content team — the folks responsible for the new 10-year anniversary challenge series that has me trying to stop the immortal Bo Jackson before I get a new superstar opponent this Tuesday.

That silent majority of single-player MUT gamers have, like me, really seen the game open up to them this year through the mode’s Missions, which are collections of the single-player challenges that Ultimate Team has been tossing at players since 2012. These missions are more of an improvement roadmap, and indeed that’s how I started, figuring that I would build up a respectable team for online play with them. But after about 15 hours, the solo play just became the whole point of the mode for me.

This year, Ultimate Team sports two very long-playing series of solo challenges that’ll award an 86-rated player upon completion. Sitting in my menu is another two missions of 16 games each, based on the schedules of the Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts. They’ll award an 86-rated player from each team on completion. I still have a long way to go with them.

Then there’s “Theme Diamonds,” which doesn’t land me any superstar loot but it does offer 18 challenges against an opposing team led by a top-of-his game superstar, and gameplay always pays out Madden’s free virtual currency. In these, like all the others, I can choose a difficulty setting and complete bonus objectives to earn anywhere from one to five stars, and there are player and pack awards at certain star milestones.

“This year, we made a change to make it more open,” said J.P. Kellams, a features producer for Ultimate Team who joined EA Sports in 2017 after a decade at PlatinumGames. That comes mainly in the form of a one-to-five star challenges system, which allows players to choose their difficulty and complete bonus objectives. For me, it’s the difference between simply passing a defensive challenge (my weakest area) or dominating a running challenge with Jim Brown, a freebie player Twitch gave out shortly after the game’s launch. Either way, I still pass it, get that check-in-the-box sense of fulfillment, and move on to the next one.

“Switching to a non-linear [progression], being able to select your difficulty and decide ghow hard you want to go, and both see your own skill in the game progress, but also your team progress, was all kind of a holistic approach to you getting better in the game,” Kellams said.

“We have made a design choice that we don’t care, necessarily, about the order in which you play the content,” Stein added. “The best reward is no longer gated by the 100th challenge of 100 total available challenges.”

Furthermore, Stein says the switch to the star system for each challenge, as opposed to the pass-fail grading of years past, seems to keep the single-player minded in the mode longer. This may be what I was responding to, without really knowing it. Before I would run through Ultimate Team’s onboarding challenges until I got to the one that I couldn’t complete and didn’t care about completing, then I’d go back to Franchise. Stein says I wasn’t the only one playing this way, by far.

“When we take a look at previous iterations of Madden Ultimate Team, we would see cases where as soon as we built in a challenge that was too difficult for players to surpass, it was just a huge cliff,” Stein said. “There was no way for them to continue progressing; they just felt defeated.”

Screenshot of Madden NFL 20, in which Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is stiff-arming a defender for the Indianapolis Colts.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is another star who joins everyone’s team early. Single-player challenges also don’t knock any games off his contract (the amount of time you get with him before losing him.)
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Whatever it is that made Ultimate Team connect with me this year, it came at a good time. Though Franchise is still principally my mode of play, longtime players have figured out that that its staple activities really haven’t changed that much. For team management, Ultimate Team provides more variety, with Franchise largely leaning on the same systems it has over the years. Madden is hardly the only sports video game butting up against the diminishing returns of a 20-year-old core mode of play where nearly everything has been tried. Though it’ll still face the same questions with Franchise next year (and every year after) broadening the single-player opportunities in Ultimate Team is one way to keep Madden as a whole fresh.

“One of the things that I really like about what what we’ve built is my ability to sit on the couch and kind of zone out for an hour or two, and play bite-sized football experiences,” said Kellams, speaking for me as well. “I’m a big fan of games where I would just sit down and play the same challenge over and over until I got the highest star rating. I do the same thing in Forza Motorsport. When we were setting up what was important to us around Ultimate Team challenges this year, that was the one thing that I was insistent on: ‘I want to be able to sit on my couch and just grind that until I get the best possible rating.’”

Stein, who is more of a hardcore Madden player (indeed, he played his way into a job with EA Sports from its Game Changers program) sees another connection between Ultimate Team and single-player modes.

“I had this epiphany the year we put MUT Squads in [in 2017],” Stein said, referring to the mode where players join up cooperatively, each handling a different skill position on the field. “I never knew it, but I was always playing MUT Squads in older versions of Madden. I would go into Franchise, I would do a fantasy draft, then I’d go to my friend’s house and we’d put our controllers on the same side of the team select screen and play versus the CPU. I had no idea at the time, but I was actually playing Madden Ultimate Team.”

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on sports and video games.

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